Papua New Guinea, July 2001
© Roger Butler and Andrew Jacob, 2001
Be warned: This is waaaaay long.
Michael Bates, Baden Holt, Alex Debono, Roger Butler, Alex
Makarenko, Fred Bourgault, Luke Binsted, Andrew Jacob
At around Easter time this year, Michael Bates advertised a walk in Papua
New Guinea. He grew up there and his parents run Trans Niugini Tours from
their compound in Mt Hagen. His return for the holidays was a perfect
excuse to bring a few Aussies along and show them the majesty of this
The report is split into two sections. Andrew wrote the first part
describing the ascent of PNG's highest peak, Mt Wilhelm. Roger details the
second week of the trip, the equally impressive Mt Giluwe. It's not short,
but the trip took in two fully-packed weeks and takes a bit of describing.
MT WILHELM TRAVERSE
by Andrew Jacob
Party members: as above plus guides Michael, Maria, Casper, David, Peter,
This turned out to be the most fascinating, rewarding trip I've ever done.
PNG is a very young and at the same time an ageless country. A country of
jet aircraft and tribal warfare, grass & bamboo huts and international
hotels, populated by raskols and the most friendly generous people, & guides
with cameras who walk bare footed. A country exhibiting the usual third
world schizophrenia of trying to maintain old traditions while adopting
I went there expecting to just walk over the highest mountain in PNG and add
a tick to my summits list but came home with a small piece of my heart left
behind in a village called Ambullua. A village of grass and bamboo huts,
sing-sings, friendly faces, and the sweetest fruit I've ever tasted!
After an eventful trip from Sydney to the highlands town of Mt Hagen
(involving flight delays, fire-alarms, drunks, burglaries, and a ghastly
night in an expensive hotel in Moresby - Qantas paid!) we were met by
Michael Bates, trip organiser extraordinaire, and his Dad, Bob, who runs the
Trans Niugini tour company. But before we could start walking we had to cope
with an earthquake and the mountains of food Michael's mum, Pam, had
arranged. Thank you :)
We flew out of Hagen to the short grass strip of Kol. Kol was suffering a
temporary truce in a tribal fight with its neighbouring village. Kol men had
stolen two women, so the other village had shot two Kol men. Our route lay
thru the other village. So, a little apprehensively, we set off, only to be
greeted as friends as the barricade across the bridge was dismantled for us
to pass. The local teacher explained the situation to me, "I can't teach.
The school is in Kol. They will kill me if I go to school". He shrugged.
Such is life in rural PNG!
Further down the trail we were met by the village big-man, kitted out in his
battle dress and then two other men demonstrating their fighting technique:
One held a six foot tall shield, the other ducked out from behind him to let
off some arrows. Clearly news of our arrival was preceding us. In fact, it
preceded us for the seven hours it took to reach Ambullua. Seven hours
through tropical heat, tropical drizzle, beautiful tropical jungle, pandanus
palms, villages of smiling, inquisitive people, and river crossings over
bridges of slippery logs with five metre drops to the rapids below. Bare
foot is the way to go here.
Ambullua is the home of Jack Bal, whose family built the track over Wilhelm
in the hope of attracting visitors, and therefore an income. It turned out
we were the first group of tourists to use the track. And we were probably
the largest group of westerners to ever pass thru Ambullua. Approaching the
village we discovered there was to be a reception for us, a welcoming
sing-sing. This was no longer just a walk over a hill but had become a
journey into twenty-first century highlands culture and life.
We were welcomed by two warriors running rings around us, wearing plumes of
black feathers in their head-dresses, faces painted dark, brandishing
spears, arrows and a bow. Fresh "arse-grass", as it's quaintly known, shoved
down the back of their waist belts. They'd expected us to arrive that
morning, not at dusk as it was now. Everyone was worried we had met a
ghastly fate along the track, the old women cried as they hugged us. We
received garlands of flowers, a traditionally carved spear and a bilum
(knitted bag) each and sat outside Jacks new gesthaus, built traditionally,
and listened to more welcome speeches from Michael (Jacks brother) and Maria
(sister). My bilum was decorated with a cuscus skull.
Inside, fresh bananas, strawberries and passionfruit were laid out for us,
and Maria announced (in pidgin with Michael translating) that if there was
anything we wanted we just had to ask and she'd deal with it. Water arrived
in hollow bamboo poles, with cups of bamboo, and later platters of delicious
karoka nuts. Things were getting embarrassingly out of hand! We were clearly
being treated as honoured guests, a situation I'm not familiar with and I
think everyone else was feeling a little awkward too. Never mind, there was
only one thing for us to do right now. Voice our appreciation and make the
most of it.
Later in the evening the sound of bamboo flutes approached. A dozen or so
men from the village, including some of the elders, sat with us outside
"Korilku" guest house and sang and played their flutes for us. We
reciprocated with a rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", a version
of "Frere Jacque" and Fred sang a beautiful Quebecois Indian song.
The next morning we were brought a breakfast of cooked kaukau (sweet potato)
sweet passionfruits and roasted karoka nuts. Then it was time for another
sing-sing. The good old LP guide explains that highland custom relies on
gift-exchange to cement relationships. Michael had some food for the guides
we intended to hire for the traverse, and some of us had brought some old
warm clothes to distribute to them - they don't usually travel up the
mountain, "It's cold and there's no food", explained David later. But we
felt we owed them more so we gathered some food together from our packs:
some rice, sultanas, tinned tuna, chocolate & muesli bars.
In reality, our presence was probably a significant "gift". Most of the
village thought Jack was mad for persevering with his track-making. But now,
they said, "We can see he was right". I only hope that their hopes are
fulfilled and that, while westerners do come and contribute to the
prosperity of the village, they can remain in control of the changes that
will inevitably occur. "Modernise, not westernise" I heard someone on TV say
the other day - perhaps a good motto?
Our gifts were accepted with a foot-stomping dance encircling us, after
which a long sing-sing erupted, everyone with their black feather
headdresses bouncing, Maria with stuffed birds poked into her beanie, bamboo
necklaces and cloaks made of bamboo rings, like ancient chain-mail, bilums
flopping around their necks, Paul thumping his drum, others blowing on the
flutes, the kids stomping happily away and stabbing their spears at the air,
all huddled in a tight circle about the flute players, colour,
sound...others from the village watching on in the chill dampness of the
morning air, smoke from the morning fire pouring out of the grass-roofed hut
beside us, banana trees to the right, the bright green grassy gardens and
deep, dark green of the forest beyond. Overhead the mist rising into a pale
blue morning sky and above everything the ridges leading on up to Korel
Finally we got under way, along with half the village it seemed! Everyone
had come out to see the tourists. Unfortunately Jack was not with us, he was
in Goroka hospital with cancer of the throat. But his brother Michael was
coming, dressed in his work fatigues and his favourite yellow hard hat. I
don't remember him ever taking it off!
And so we walked. Day 1 was up a never-ending ridge, through the jungle, to
two small huts. Water was a steep walk away, but the reward was fresh
water-cress! Day 2 was on up to the tree-line and up a grassy, boggy ridge
to 3600m, in a small saddle. From here we could see the valley of Kol and
the way we had come two days before, and watch the clouds - Ive never seen a
more stunning cloudscape - layer after layer, drifting about the valleys,
billowing overhead, forming, blowing apart, reforming. It rained, then
hailed, then cleared. We now had just six guides: Michael, Maria, Rita,
Casper, Peter and David. Only Michael had been right over the mountain
before and so all seemed enthralled by the trip and the landscape. At
intervals they lit smoky fires to let their families know we were OK.
Day 3 began with a request that we not shout or make any more loud noises,
as these would anger the mountain spirits/gods and bring down more hail. We
continued over a small pass to a long ridge that took us past a peak called
Warakai, past a hut called Bungey and past a recently discovered lake,
Waragenda. The lake doesn't even appear on the map, and Jack only discovered
it in January while constructing this part of the walk! It was a real
pleasure and privilege to be walking new terrain, to feel like an explorer,
being one of the first people to pass this way, to see these things. To
receive a genuine village welcome, not some half-hearted touristy show, but
the real thing, was also special.
The weather typically would be fairly clear in the morning with cloud
building up from the valleys, until in early afternoon the rain would start,
and continue till evening. Today, however the cloud and mist just kept
rolling overhead but no rain came. By the end of the day the sky was clear.
Our respectful quiet had been rewarded. We reached the Seeku valley, a high,
virtually hidden valley on the west of the main peak by midday and spent the
afternoon resting, fixing stoves, photographing, and listening to Luke
recite poetry. The stars came out, Scorpio rose above the peak of Wilhelm,
followed by Mars, and then the full Moon. It was strange to see the Cross so
low in the sky! We settled in for a cold night at 4000m. Despite the
altitude and the rapid ascent we'd made, altitude was not the problem I'd
expected. More PNG magic?
Day 4 dawned clear. Well, at least it did when dawn finally arrived. To
avoid being clouded out at the summit we had to set off by 5am. I left first
to try getting as far ahead as possible. For the last few days I'd been the
weakest of the party and Michael had carried my pack. now I had it back but
didn't want to slow anyone down. I reached the top of the valley, below the
final obstacle: a steep grassy gully leading to a scree slope and the
summit. Behind me a trail of headlamps bobbed along, rapidly catching up.
The path up to here had been literally hacked out of the peaty soil, a
mammoth task, but one whose environmental effect we were a little unsure of!
But then we were walking there...an old dilemma.
Most of the guides had set off at dawn, as they didn't have torches, but
they caught up pretty soon. They were still barefoot, at 4400m, in the
chilly morning, and walking as if they had just climbed a single staircase!
We scrambled to the summit, 4509m at 8:30am. The highest point in PNG. Only
a couple of peaks in Irian Jaya are higher, then you'd have to go to Nepal
or Antarctica to find something higher (map). A little atmospheric cloud filled
the valleys but we could see for hundreds of km in all directions, out to
Madang (was that the ocean?), the northern river plains, the Finesteres
(another fine range for a walk), halfway to Lae, south to the gardens of the
Waghi valley, and west back the way we'd come (landmarks from our first days
walk felt physically close but emotionally remote due to all that had
happened in the last few days). Maria, David & Casper were enjoying it as
much as us, pointing out landmarks, their home valley, and helping us carry
out our western tradition of summit photos!
We finally started down the eastern track, the usual ascent route. Although
heavily used it has recently been cleaned up - Michael told us how, on his
last trip, it had been covered with rubbish. Down, down for a thousand
metres, three thousand knee-wobbling feet, past locals on their way up, a
plaque to a missing walker, into the mist and past the B-24 which crashed on
May 22, 1944 killing all 11 crew. On down to the Piunde Lake and the walkers
huts. There Bob met us with fresh bread and cheese, Yum! And we settled into
the "A-Frame" hut. Our guides preferred the small grass/bamboo hut outside
where they kept themselves warm, as usual, beside a fire. Sometimes they
would fall asleep too close and wake to find their shirts alight!
Our guides had run out of food. Heaven knows what happened to the food
Michael had brought for them, or the warm clothes? We rounded up our spare
rice, sultanas, noodles, muesli bars and so on for them.
Day 5 we headed down the valley to Keglsugl in the farewell drizzle Korel
Khu had arranged for us. Sad to see us go? After celebrating with fresh,
sweet strawberries from the roadside stall we all piled into the Range Rover
and the big blue truck for home.
And the drive home was almost as eventful as the walk...more stops for
strawberries (the first 2 kilos had run out!) and karoka nuts and bananas.
Then the spectacular Chimbu gorge road, with roadside drops of a thousand
metres, gardens clinging to the near-vertical hillsides, pigs everywhere &
the rutted, stony track throwing us about the truck. Finally the sealed
Highlands Highway. Well, sealed if you ignore the potholes every hundred
metres, the short dirt sections, and the one-lane bridges. This is PNG's
And as we'd begun, we finished. Tribal fighting across the highway caused a
traffic jam. After an hour and a half it finished, one side retreating in
silhouette across the hills while the other trotted past us carrying their
AK-47 look-alikes and home made guns, faces painted black.
We waved goodbye to our guides, off to visit Jack in hospital the next day,
as Michael drove them to a relative's place. Hot showers and heaps more food
from Pam (and the cooks). Baden and I headed home while the others prepared
for their Giluwe walk.
by Roger Butler
Party members: all except Andrew and Baden plus guides Willie, Nigil, and
Like Andrew, I'm fascinated by the diversity in this second-world country.
Being so close to Asia, I expected the people be similar. But they couldn't
be more different. Aggression is a way of life, but is orderly and managed.
Wealth is measured by how much you give away to others. Government and
bureaucracy fails because family nepotism is more important than rigid law.
It'll be interesting to see how this country makes its way into the 21st
We spent Saturday relaxing and preparing for the next trip. Another visit
to the supermarket and the fresh food market occupied the morning. Fred and
Alex M both purchased woven leashes normally used for leading pigs around.
Are these destined for submissive partners or something more practical?
We spent the afternoon at the Highlander Hotel, one of the best places in
town. Unfortunately, the food was tragic. It was typical of PNGs fried,
greasy offerings. Anything fresh is superb, but anything processed is
disgusting. But the pool and surrounds were great and we lazed the
afternoon away. The day was absolutely cloud free, a freak phenomenon in
We'd been invited to dine at the house of some friends of the Bates. All
PNG Highlands provinces are dry, meaing you're not allowed to bring in any
alcohol. But of course there are ways around this regulation and we enjoyed
an entertaining evening with wine, beer, and home brew. One of the
evening's better stories was that of a group of pigs being jailed for
trespassing on and trashing someone's property. It was apparently easier to
jail the pigs than the owner.
Baden and Andrew's trip ended here and they flew back to Australia. Our
smaller party of six left for the second walk on Sunday in Bob's Range
Rover. Bob drove so we had a cramped three hour trip along rough dirt roads
to a town called Tambul. A little further on at a place called Melke, we
stopped where a group of nationals were gathered. They were busy
constructing the grave for one of the university students that was killed
during the demonstrations in Moresby two weeks before. They were making a
big deal of it and building it close to the road to make some sort of
political statement. Bob recognised someone that had accompanied him on a
previous trip and this guy organised three guides for our trip.
We piled back into the Range Rover, with the three guides (and a freeloader)
riding on the tailgate. This situation only became precarious when we came
across a very flimsy looking log bridge. The guides got off and walked and
we heard the bridge cracking slightly as we drove across. But safely at our
destination, we set off south through tall grass towards Mt Giluwe. The
grass soon gave way to a forested path. However, the forested path soon
gave way to just forest. Our guides Willie, Thompson, and Nigil assured us
that the path had just overgrown a little, but eventually conceded that they
Our choices were to retreat the way we'd come and find the correct path, or
cut our way east through the jungle until we picked up the track. We chose
this option and found the track on the other side of a small river as
Michael guessed we would. The guides managed to find a couple of wild dog
puppies on the way and kept them for the rest of the trip. But the delays
had lost us over two hours walking time and our intended campsite was still
a long way off.
It's probably worth saying something about the influence of the Christian
missionaries in PNG. They are very active and the different denominations
compete to convert new villages. I was surprised that the people we met had
English-sounding names. This is the missionary influence and most people
also have traditional names. I think the missionary influence is both
positive and negative. On the positive side, they bring education to remote
communities who genuinely desire knowledge. But their Christian influence
is mixing with and diluting traditional culture. Maybe this is progress...
The jungle gave way to alpine grassland at an altitude of 3200m and we
slogged our way up a really long grassy valley until 6:30pm. The headwaters
of the valley contain excellent campsites with views up to the three great
peaks of Giluwe. The temperature dropped below freezing just as we
retreated to our tents for dinner. The guides retreated to small hut across
the valley and again kept themselves warm with a hut fire.
Monday began as another cloudless day and we were keen to bag our first
peak. Giluwe's centre peak is lower than the other two. We started up the
western peak, which is only 20m higher than the eastern one and a good 2km
away. After elevenses on the top, we descended back to the tents, packed
them, and climbed to the ridge below the eastern peak. We camped on the
ridge as a light rain began and settled in for the night.
We woke to a light rain on our third day, donned Goretex, and began the
ascent to the eastern peak. We expected our guides to be huddled in their
little hut for the morning, but heard Thompson's cry soon after beginning
the climb. He caught up and we continued upwards. Towards the summit, the
rain gave way to snow! Of course, this removed our desire to spend much
time up there and we descended quickly, passing a young group of nationals
on the way. We packed up and followed a northerly ridge system for 10km to
the end of the grasslands. I thought this part of the walk was reminiscent
of the Tasmanian Central Plateau, with lots of tarns. Our chosen camp
overlooked the villages in the valley below, while the guides stayed in a
tiny cave nearby.
We just missed a great sunrise and made our way down through the forest to
the villages below. Here we were surprised to find a horse grazing.
They're not a common sight in PNG. Bob had driven in from Mt Hagen that
morning and was only a few minutes away. The road back to Mt Hagen was even
worse than on the way in. Bob had winched three PMVs out of a muddy bog on
his way to get us. An entrepeneurial local had decided the road needed
fixing and organised a few kids to reinforce the bogs with rocks. But he
wanted 30 kina ($20) as a toll! Bob planted his foot and escaped.
Back in Mt Hagen, Fred and Alex M were offered a lift to Madang. They set
off at 6am the next day for a couple of days diving and snorkelling.
Luke, Alex D, and I headed to Port Moresby for a night before flying home
the next day. Moresby was back to normal after the curfew imposed after
riots two weeks before. The botanical gardens are a highlight of an
otherwise unattractive city. The university, local markets, and the museum
occupied us for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, we were evicted
prematurely from the museum because of a bomb scare but had seen most of it.
Some of the stories Michael told along the way are worth recounting. One of
the best was of the provincial governor who was both a priest and a porn
star. Apparently you can get copies of his videos in Port Moresby. Another
was about Phillip the cannibal. He was asked whether human tastes like
chicken. "No, more like pig".
Last modified: Tue May 25 11:36:15 EST 2004